Would I lie to you? Probably, says science

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Back in the old-timey days when people (many known as women) were suspected of witchcraft, their accusers and would-be judges used a variety of interesting methods to secure the truth. Torture was very popular. So too the testimony of excellent witnesses such as grudgeful neighbours and envious acquaintances.

If they told the truth – and if that truth did not include signing any documents in blood or having carnal knowledge of Lucifer – if they told the good and godly truth, that they were not witches, then they’d be freed. But of course, and fair enough, even by now-timey legal standards, the accusers needed evidence.

It was terrible. If you had a pet, you were a witch. If you had a garden gnome, you were a witch. If you could swim, if you had a birthmark, if you survived a flu – witch you were.

That which is more terrible is the fact that them as were accused of dark deeds were in fact the ones being misled. The truth was never going to set them free. In fact, sometimes not even a well-crafted lie would do the trick.

The only truth was that some people wanted other people to be found guilty of witchcraft. If sufficient cats, brooms and witnesses to your ability to fly could be found, then it was only a matter of time before they tossed you on the fire.

Lying has been with us since the beginning of ever. It’s widely written about in religious and philosophical works, studies in psychology and neuroscience, murder mysteries and psychological thrillers.

“Everyone lies” is one of the few things most people agree on. But where does lying come from, how did it become so popular, and how did it keep its trendiness?

In 2018, the Washington Post ran a story titled Why liars lie: What science tells us about deception. Beneath the headline was a picture of Donald Trump.

I don’t believe there was anything remarkable about the style of the headline or the positioning of the photograph, but possibly because that person has become synonymous with that word, all I saw was the picture and the word “lie.”

It is a rare instance of someone almost literally becoming the poster child for something.

From this article and other research, but mostly I expect because we are alive and don’t live under rocks, we know that lying rewards us. We lie because there is a benefit. It may give us an advantage over others or protect an unpleasant fact from being revealed (and so sparing us the embarrassment, inconvenience or jail term tied to that fact).

Studies about lying often involve games and questions to see which and how many participants act out of self-interest or greed. They identify the risk-takers or those with very active reward responses.

But the Post piece had what I’d really been trying to untangle. From its interview with Duke University behavioural psychologist Dan Airely came The Thing I wanted to know: “The dangerous thing about lying is people don’t understand how the act changes us,” said Dan.

This is what I’d been worrying at like a scab. Why is lying hard for some and second nature to others? It seems the more you lie, the easier it gets. Like making a soufflĂ©. Go make a soufflĂ© and see how far the metaphor goes. Lying is not easy. It takes work. Brainy work.

Dan also said, “We are our own judges about our own honesty…And that internal judge is what differentiates psychopaths and non-psychopaths…We as a society need to understand that when we don’t punish lying, we increase the probability it will happen again.”

This is a hard blow indeed, unaccustomed as we are to self-policing and ideas of personal responsibility and self- or public-accountability.

Lying gets easier with practice. It does not necessarily make you a better liar, just one who does not feel unease about deception.

We start lying early, around two or three years old. Most children are pretty bad liars because they don’t realise the value of playing the long game. They don’t consider the need for a back-up plan or an alibi.

“When a child lies, she is essentially trying to change a situation, to reconstruct things the way she wants them to be,” I read in Scholastic Press’s Parents.

We’re all reshaping or misrepresenting facts when we lie. Even in the most innocuous and socially sanctioned ones – the things you say not to offend others, for instance.

We won’t grow out of lying unless it’s checked, as per Dan Airely. We’ll just get better at it.

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"Would I lie to you? Probably, says science"

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